Are you sitting comfortably? How to develop a seat that will support your confidence
“I feel so unsafe up there” “if he spooks I am done for!” “I bounce all over the place when we canter” “I can’t give clear signals to my horse – he seems confused” “I can’t relax and my horse picks up on my tension!”
These are some comments in questions recently sent to me – and they all boil down to one thing: do you have a “good seat”?
Hmmm, but what does “good seat” mean? Some people call it an independent seat, some call it a balanced seat – it doesn’t matter what you call it, but this is what your seat SHOULD allow you to do – oops, I used a “should” there – see, they sneak in everywhere don’t they? Let me be more careful with my wording – here are the things a “good seat” WILL allow you to do:
When you first sit on your horse, you feel comfy and secure
You can move one leg to give an aid with nothing else on your body moving — especially the other leg
You can move your hands, elbows and shoulders without your legs changing position
You can turn your head to look at things without any other part of your body moving
You can use one hand on the rein without – yes, you’ve guessed – any other part of your body moving
You can ride on a hack or in an arena looking where you’re going and not at your horse’s ears
When your horse spooks or does that signature sideways leap a that horse eating blade of grass – you go WITH your horse and stay relaxed…..
For most of us, given how we have learned to ride – mechanically, with no real focus on anything other than “heels down, hands steady!”—other things are much more likely, for example, see how many of these things, which I used to feel and do – are what you feel and do as well:
When I first sat on a horse I felt “perched” and insecure – and often wondered where the neck had gone!
When I asked the horse to go forwards, my whole body rocked and my seat came forwards and out of the saddle so my legs could be firm enough to get a result
When I lifted one hand to use the rein – the other one would lift too!
And as for using single leg aids – no way could I move one leg without the other one doing something weird – on lateral moves my horse often ended up totally confused as to which direction I wanted him to go, my leg aids were so unclear.
In canter I found it hard to find my balance – it was easier to stand in the stirrups and hold the mane than actually sit down – and don’t even mention sitting trot – even rising trot was a bit bouncy!
And when my horse spooked? I nearly always either came off – or found myself hanging on the side of my horse and pulling myself back into the saddle, my legs seemed to have come up SO much I had nothing to grip with….
And yet even with all this, my instructors told me I had a “good seat”, rode well and I was given more and more advanced horses to ride.
Inside myself though, I knew that it was nowhere near “good enough” – and when I started on my own confidence journey, I knew that finding a way to have a comfy, secure, balanced, independent SAFE seat was one of my foundation stones.
So – how do you get this wonderful “good seat”?
Well, one thing is for sure – you don’t get it by being yelled at to have your “heels down” “toes in” knees in” and “sit tall”…. all instructions like that do for most of us is make us tense and tight – the opposite of a balanced, relaxed body! If you have ever tried to put your heels down, you will have felt how that puts tension in other parts of your leg and often puts your seat totally out of balance!
The thing is that this is just one more example of how some schools of riding get things back to front: – we see the riders of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, or Philippe Karl riding – and we see that their heels are slightly down,, their toes are parallel to the horse, their calves are draped and softly touching the curve of the horse’s side and their knees are pointing forwards, not out –
And instead of realising that ALL these things are the OUTCOME of YEARS of riding work that has suppled joints, relaxed muscles and built the confidence of the rider so there is ZERO tension there – people assume that these are what we need to force ourselves to DO to be a good rider – they get it back to front!
WHEN we are supple and relaxed, THEN our heels will be slightly down, toes in etc. Pushing our heels down, forcing our toes forward etc will NOT make us supple and relaxed – in fact it does the opposite and can greatly affect our seat in a very negative way.
A “good seat” is the result of three elements being in place:
- Using your core
- Remember the “Elvis Pelvis”
- Suppling and Balance exercises
Let’s take a look at each of these elements:
- Using your core:
Your core, as most of us know, is the set of muscles made up by our lower back and our abdominal area. When we use these muscles effectively, then they act as stabilisers: which means when we move one arm, the other won’t move unnecessarily – -and the same thing with legs and other body parts. By “engaging” our core we can minimise the movement of our body when we are giving aids or doing exercises.
There are a few ways to develop your core: fitness programmes help, Pilates – especially Pilates for riders – has made a huge difference to many riders. And then there is simply remembering to engage your core when you ride and practicing on your horse.
How do you engage your core? Well there are many complex explanations – but here is a simple one a Pilates instructor told me a while ago – and it’s simple enough that I remember it when I am about to get on a horse:
“Suck in your belly button towards your spine as FAR as it will go – then let it out half way – then let it out half way again…..congratulations, your core is now engaged – oh, and don’t forget to breathe!”
I use this a LOT when I ride and it makes a HUGE difference to my ability to keep an independent seat – give it a try and see how it works for you.
2. Remember the “Elvis Pelvis”
The most important element of your seat is – your pelvis. This is the area that is in direct contact with the saddle or horse’s back – and is the part of your body in closest connection with the horse. Ultimately what you are aiming for if you want that “centaur” feeling is that your pelvis and your horse’s pelvis are connected and move as one – so it feels as if you are just walking and running while 9 feet tall – your body is yours, and your horse’s legs are yours to move…..
So it makes sense that this is the FIRST part of us we need to sort out. The problem is, that most of the focus is on where our FEET are and what they are doing – and we end up pushing our heels down and rolling our thighs and thinking tall – each of which moves our pelvis further and further out of position and DIS-connects us from our horse.
So we need to have our PELVIS in a good place BEFORE working on our legs, toes, heels, head, shoulders etc.
One way to do this is to think of having an “Elvis Pelvis”. To find your Elvis Pelvis, first you have to find your Donald Duck pelvis – yes, this does sound silly, but it’s the easiest way to teach this!
Stand on the ground, and then imagine you are Donald duck and stand like him – pushing your seat out behind you, hollowing your back – that is the Donald Duck pelvis (and yes, I DO see some people riding like this!)
Then, imagine you are Elvis Presley and thrust your pelvis forwards ready to gyrate it like he did when singing – your pelvis now feels like it’s at an angle – and will feel a bit odd while you are on the ground – when you are sitting in the saddle THIS is a great position for your pelvis!
When you are sitting on your horse, try this too – go to Donald Duck – -then add in what we are often told to do and sit right up on your crotch area – with legs straight and so on – then, hooking two fingers under the pommel of your saddle to give you a bit of leverage, lift your knees up and thrust your pelvis into the Elvis position…..
Once your pelvis is in this position – SLOWLY let your legs hang down WITHOUT allowing the pelvis to move – you will probably be a bit shocked at how far forward your legs are now, but that is OK – at least your SEAT is in the right place!! You might also notice that your back isn’t straight and you feel as if you are slouched, or leaning back – -that’s ok for now because at least your SEAT is in the right place….
What will help your legs end up in that lovely classical position under you, with your heels under your hips – is when the muscles at the front of your hips, the ones your legs seem to hang from when you sit on your horse – relax and supple up enough to ALLOW your legs to be in the “right” position….so the leg position is the RESULT of having your seat in position and being supple.
A straight upper body, is the result of suppleness in your lower back and core so you can sit with your Elvis Pelvis, and then slowly, without allowing any other part of your body to move, using your CORE to do the move – slowly straighten your back – now your upper body is “correct” AND your seat is in place.
Very few people can have their seat AND legs AND upper body in position straight away – after all, few of us spend all day every day riding and have little time to develop that suppleness and core strength that is required BUT simply having your seat in the right alignment in the saddle will make a HUGE difference to how secure you are – and how confident you feel!
3. Suppling and Balance exercises
I am probably showing my age here, but how many of us remember the days when we HAD to have lessons on the lunge before we were allowed to touch the reins of our horses?
In his book “My horses, my teachers” Alois Podhasky talks of how riders arriving at the Spanish Riding School would spend two years on the lunge!
To some people today, this would seem incredible – two years on the lunge! And what on earth could they be learning by just sitting there and going round and round? Well, that’s the thing – when we talk of being on the lunge, it’s not about just sitting there – to develop a really good seat, lunge work needs to include suppling and balance exercises as WELL as getting used to the movement of the horse.
I use lunging/circling and seat work for two things.
First, to build a rider’s confidence in a horse’s movement. When someone you trust has control of the horse, you as a rider can focus completely on the horse’s movement and get used to how it feels to walk, trot and canter – and do the lateral moves – in a relaxed way which can make a huge difference to how confident you then are when you are doing the moves on your own horse later.
However, there is another way lunging can be used – with a series of suppling and balancing exercises you can develop a secure, balanced seat VERY effectively.
As human being s we are all built slightly differently – our joints are different, our muscles are different – some os us are tall, some short, our centres of gravity are different – so what seat work does is, instead of mechanically putting you in a position where you “should” be balanced, it gives you a series of exercises where YOU find your OWN balance when in the saddle
So what ARE these exercises? Many people have versions of them – and the key is to be able to move ANY part of your body WITHOUT moving any other – let me give you an example:
I might have someone on the horse, and be circling the horse at a nice slow walk and, after making sure the person has “fixed their seat” into the Elvis Pelvis position I will say – now, think about lifting your right knee a faction of an inch – and letting your leg kick back towards your horse’s hock”. This move, done without any other body movement (engaging your core makes it easier) will open up the front of your hip.
Another move, the “kick up your leg in front of you” – again, without moving any other body part – will strengthen that same area…
After working with our legs for a while, we then add in some arm exercises so we end up using each leg and each arm individually, without affecting any other body part – while keeping a balanced seat – and any time we feel ourselves going off balance we “fix our seat” to return to our Elvis Pelvis and find our connection again.
One of the biggest challenges when doing these exercises is most of us try too hard and do too much – we need to keep the movements as SMALL AS NECESSARY so we can do them WITHOUT moving any other body parts…
This means in the first session or two we feel we are doing nothing – but believe me, after just 4 or 5 sessions you will feel the difference…..
These exercises, once you know them, can be done with an instructor, or with a supportive friend (I often teach pairs of friends who then can give each other seat lessons – very cost effective!) and can have a huge impact on your confidence when on your horse….
Of course, here I have focused on your balance and position when ON your horse – there are also many things you can do when OFF your horse to improve your seat: Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, Tai Chi, general fitness – anything that improves your body awareness will help.
You can probably think of other things that will help too – please share!
I know I can sit on a horse that with its own rider looks tense and nervous – and just by how I sit, the horse feels the connection, feels secure and confident – and relaxes…..
How confident do you think that makes me feel?
Sitting comfortably means sitting confidently……
And when I can sit on my horse without fear, WITH confidence – well, that is when I can begin to ride….
So – what do YOU do to help yourself “sit comfortably”?
Yours, in confidence